It’s the fall season now. No, I am not talking about fashion. And although in SF, fall actually means the summer weather we didn’t get to see in the traditional months, it’s not the seasonal fluctuations that I’m addressing. The fall season for me is one of networking and information gathering. There are more conferences, more presentations, more meet-ups and get-togethers. It’s as if the summer is over and everyone begins revving up for business and towards JP Morgan week in January when everything in the life sciences in SF hits a bit of a frenzy. I like this season. So much learning on many levels. There is the science, the new products and technologies, and new people to meet.
Last week was my first time at the SynBioBeta conference. It brought a number of new ideas.
Sustainability as a theme
In the synthetic biology space, companies are working on a wide selection of technologies and many (at least attending this conference) have a mission to make this planet a better place. Here are some examples:
Food types – reducing livestock use through clean meat and vegan pet food products
Biomaterials –replacing traditional chemistry with materials made by living organisms
Agriculture – lowering chemical inputs by creating plants that can fix their own nitrogen
New production methods– algae, microorganisms and sustainable seafood systems
The goal is not to just reproduce existing commodity items, but instead to have living organisms make something even better, products that might not have been possible by another route. This uniqueness is intended to grab consumer attention and encourage interest and adoption where price may not be the primary driver.
Communication on different levels
How do we communicate the advancements in science and its practical applications to the general population? One aspect is an awareness of how the general populace view the technology, folks who don’t sit in a bubble of tech like we are in SF. Interest, skepticism, fear, distrust? Then asking, how do we educate? Our technology must tell a story, one that invokes curiosity and establishes trust.
How do we communicate with scientists to support translating research into new products and technology platforms? Again, this comes down to education. More programs are coming on line to expose university scientists to entrepreneurship courses. There are also coworking spaces, incubators and accelerators to provide exposure to the business side of biotech. This allows the academic scientist to learn what is a product and how to assess what customers want.
The Start-up Ecosystem
As new technologies and products come on line, how do they sort into “neat-o” but unclear how to use versus the practical and useful. One lesson learned that spanned multiple industries is the efficiency in adoption when new tech fits in with the existing structures. For example, in biomaterials, new organism-grown products need to integrate with existing supply chain logistics. This is very similar to healthcare, where new services find more traction when they fit with the workflow for doctors, nurses, hospitals, clinics and the like. And yet these new technologies also bring along novel challenges that will need to be accommodated. With the biomaterials, one challenge is the growing times to get the needed volume of product, different from a chemical synthesis.
Then there are the funding and integration aspects. Private funding has seen some trending to new approaches. There are funds incubating life sciences companies. Incubators are investing in companies. Entrepreneurs are starting their own life science focused incubators and investment funds. There are also funds specializing in specific niches, such as Laura Deming’s Longevity fund.
A few interesting factoids from a panel on investing in life sciences: From at least one life science fund looking at early stage biotech – about 50% of their companies are coming through an incubator program. Another comment – the most impactful mentoring incubators provide is instilling confidence in the startup founders that keeps them focused and motivated.
A different view
After the conference I found myself at totally different venue- an open house for the Internet Archive. Most know it for housing the Wayback Machine. I used to live right nearby but had never seen what lies inside. It is truly an archive. There were exhibits for older technologies from vinyl records, to VHS tapes, paper books, old scanners and copiers, early generation video games and the like. It’s reminder of how technology changes over time.
This evolution finds its way into the life sciences. As technologies move forward, the old way of doing things change and new ones come on line. I suppose there might be a biotech archive at some point. Consumer acceptance and adoption drove many of the changes on the technologies housed in the Internet Archive. Will the same hold true for biotech? On the product side (food, materials), this is likely. Technology platforms may be a different story. CRSPR, for example, has enjoyed broad adoption on the R&D side of things. How will the public react? This comes full circle to the thoughts from the SynBioBeta conference, mission, communication, engagement will be key in how these technologies fare long term.